Bend It Like Beckersted

This article was originally posted to on Dec 11, 2007

On Friday afternoon Bismark Sea was awash with Tako sails as the usual suspects once again converged on the NYC start line for Friday “Last Call” Tako Races.

As usual, the group of diehard sailors was pretty impressive:  Oliphant Ming, Liv Leigh, YumYum Divisidero, Jeff Abruzzo, Hpathe Boucher, Francois Jacques, AiLi Ling, Chaos Mandelbrot, and Svar Beckersted all bellied up as the Race Fleet du jour, completing four races on the old NYC B-1A course.

Today, however, I’m only going to tell you about the first race. In fact, I’m mostly going to tell you about just one sailor: Svar Beckersted.  As your faithful reporter here,  I usually follow the race boats  from high over the course, looking down to see where the boats are headed and the tactics of the skippers at the helm.  On Friday in the first race, Svar Beckersted’s toreador performance was so impressive and so much fun to watch that halfway through I found myself jumping up from my chair, clapping my hands, and shouting at my computer screen: “GOOOOO SVARRRR!! WOOOT!” Unfortunately, I was in a public place at the time.  Starbucks nearly revoked my coffee card for disorderly conduct, and all the other patrons in the place looked at me as though I needed more medication, while slowly moving far away from my table…

Anyway, let’s not discuss my personal life; let’s get back to Svar.

Svar Beckersted is a Race Director for Starboards Yacht Club, which has, by far, the largest and most innovative sailing program in Second Life.  His long history of knowledge and dedication to SL Sailing is unquestioned, and his racing skill and accomplishments are well known.  I won’t bore you (nor embarass Svar) by listing all the stuff, but, while watching Svar sail on Friday I was reminded of a night last Spring when a few of us were sitting on the NYC dock watching the stars.  Diligent as ever, I was there reading off Svar’s incredible Hotlaps scores to Cory Copeland. Half-way through, Cory’s eyes welled with tears, so I stopped. It was obviously too much to take.  Svar set the gold standard for anybody in a Tako. We were left in wonderment, gazing at the stars.

Things move pretty quickly around here though, and several months is a very long time. Like many athletes at the pinacle of their athletic careers, Svar’s attention turned to other projects where he could express his interests and creative enthusiasm. Always thinking on a grand scale, he began an enormous development project to bring civilization to the vast, uncharted regions of the Southwest USS-SL. His creative determination resulted in SL’s Bella Lavella Island, a natural paradise that extends across nine sims. Once he carved his home from the heart of the tropical wilderness, he made it complete by marrying his sweetheat, Sallysue Cahill. Whenever I think of this tale… in fact, whenever I look at Svar and Sallysue, I get this image of Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker carving a plantation out of the Amazon rainforest in The Naked Jungle (except without all the killer ants). This so romantic, my glasses are fogging up, so let me get back to talking about sailing here….

Given all of his new interests and responsibilities, Svar generously allowed other sailors to enter the spotlight and take his place among the top seeds on the racing circuit. However, if you were ever foolish enough to think Svar might have ‘lost his racing groove,’ as it were, the first race on Friday would set you straight. Let’s take a look at what ensured there.

As I said, there was a large crowd of pretty great sailors Friday doing the NYC B-1A course. As you can see below, Hpathe Boucher’s red Tako made it across the start line first.  He was in good position, cutting the middle of the line on a starboard tack with  a clear path in front of him as he began the series of windward beats across Bougainville Strait. Oliphant Ming was second across, using his signature port-tack start. Oli’s port tack is a risky gambit if other boats are close behind him. However, in this case, Svar Beckersted was considerably arrear in the third position, and Oli roared off unimpeded.

Most good sailors who race a routine course like NYC B-1A will tell you that “the start is the thing.” If you win the start, you should usually win the whole race. By that dictum, even though he was only in third place, Svar was already in the wastebarrel, far behind the lead boats, when he crossed the start line at +9:00 seconds:

The next picture pretty much confirms that opinion. As you can see, Oli and HB have now caught up with each other and are sailing a parallel, overlapped course as they get close to the next tack point. A new sailor looking at this picture might conclude that Oli and HB are neck-and-neck without any obvious advantage. However, a closer look shows that Oli maneuvered into this position intentionally, and was probably grinning ear-to-ear at the time I took this picture. Oli is in a perfect position to blanket HB’s wind, just as they go into the tight end-of-world zone and prepare to tack.

Often the wind-blanket advantage of the windward boat is limited, because the leeward boat in this situation has right-of-way. The lee boat could potentially head up.  However, in this case HB really wants to do more than that; he wants to come about and change tack to continue on course to the first mark. He can’t do that, because SL Sailing rules only give the leeward boat rights to luff. HB can’t force Oli to change tack.

Things actually get worse. They are about to enter the 20 m ‘warning area’ near the Edge of the World (EOW).  If the rules considered the EOW an ‘obstruction,’  HB might reasonably insist he needs to tack to avoid a collision, and then demand that Oli get out of his way. Unfortunate for HB, after many long discussions in the Forum, the current SL Sailing convention is that the EOW is not a classic racing obstruction. in fact, within the 20m zone all rules are off. It’s the Wild West, on a 20m scale. Bottom line: Oli’s about to flatten HB, and HB has few options to stop him.

If you have any doubts,here’s what it looked like a few seconds later:

As you can see, powered by a full dose of race wind, Oli’s now completed his tack and is several boat lengths ahead of HB, who is essentially lying dead in the water, trying to get going again.  HB  is a great sailor and a wonderful person. However, today was just not his day on the water;  if you feel sorry for him now, just watch what happens next.

Remember that pretty boat in third place, the one with Beckersted at the tiller? He may still look far behind in the above picture, but let me tell you he was closing the gap fast, and HB was sitting there like a deer caught in Svar’s headlights.

The picture to the left shows what happened next.

Svar expertly rode in full tilt across HB’s bow. If you look at the bottom of the picture you can see the position of the “EOW Zone” boundary, so it’s not certain whether the rules apply. Even under the rules, however, Svar is maintaining a course with a starboard tack and HB is either mid-tack, dead in the water, or just ‘in the Zone.” With any of those conditions, SB has right-of-way.

SB is following the “best course” he wants to follow anyway, but with a few tiny adjustments here he takes HB’s wind, prevents him from tacking, and actually forces HB into the Sim Wall at the Mystical End Of the World.

That’s a pretty neat maneuver, Skipper Beckersted.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I did this in a race, at this point I’d kindly accept second place and start writing home to Mom about the great racing block I just did. But  Sportsfans? Svar was just loosening up here, getting a rhythm going… the best was yet to come.

The image below shows the setup two seconds later. HB slammed into the EOW, but Svar’s was not even looking anymore. Remarkably, within those two seconds, SB had changed tack with such deliberate precision that Oli’s transom now fell square dead center in the Beckersted gunsite.

Oli has enormous skill and wisdom sailing SL, and he probably was justified thinking he had a free ride home and was heading for first place after he punched out HB. You can imagine Oli then looking over his shoulder to see Svar steaming down on him. I’d love to know what Oli mutterred to himself then!

They both stay on course, and a few seconds later, as shown below, Svar’s bow lines up with Oli’s transom.

Svar is about to move into a windward, overlapped position stealing the air. In WWF terms, Svar’s about to put a vice grip on Oli’s chest ’till he turns blue. (I actually don’t know anything about wrestling, so forget that last analogy.) What should Oli do here?

Well, if you look carefully, Oli’s already decided what to do, and it’s pretty risky. Svar’s boat below is heeled over with sails set to strain canvas in an all-out effort to maintain momentum on a precision close haul that will grab windward control. Svar knows exactly where he wants to go. Of course, Oli knows this too.

Look at Oli’s boat. It’s not heeling as much and its pointed a bit more to windward…. Oli’s tacking right in front of Svar’s bow!!! His reasoning is pretty clear. If he can get on a starboard tack, he’ll have ROW and he’ll be able to force Svar to change course. If successful, Oli could maintain his lead while also seriously hamstringing the Beckersted assault. The real problem is that an extra tack will cost Oli time and momentum… two things he has precious little of.

Oli therefore decides to tack at the last possible second, to maximally confuse and disrupt Svar’s attack. After all, if Oli tacks too early, Svar will just glide past Oli’s stern and reach the first mark in the lead. However, this is a desperate plan on Oli’s part. If Oli tacks too late, he could suffer two protests. #1: Svar could ram Oli and claim Oli’s tack was responsible for the collision. #2 If Svar’s bow actually passed Oli’s transom, then the boats were overlapped, and windward/leeward rights pertain. Oli can luff in that case, but he cannot tack.   There’s another rule Oli could break, but I forget it at the moment…  Let’s just all agree  what Oli’s doing is pretty risky.

Please don’t think I’m criticizing Oli.  Sometimes in life you just have to do what you have to do! It’s sort of like those old World War II submarine movies, where the damaged boat only has one torpedo left, and the young captain and his sweaty crew have to fire it at the last possible instant… to save humanity from an eternity of Wagnerian operas.

Oli attempted to tack at the last possible second, and I’m not sure if he technically made it. I couldn’t tell if Svar’s bow was past Oli’s transom…. However, for a moment let’s  forget about the rules because there was no protest. Take a look at the next very quick sequence, after Oli was mid-tack:

First of all, separate rules apply when a boat is tacking. To make it simple, I usually tell new SL sailors that tacking boats have Rodney Dangerfield rules: “You got no rights.” But in this case, independent of all of that, SB had both sufficient momentum and the astonishing helm control to veer off, then slide around Oli to pass him. I spent quite a few fun minutes looking at the individual frames on this race… Svar came within pixels of Oli, but they never touched. What’s that about “Ships that pass in the night?”

I love watching Oli sail, because I learn something new each time. He has the experience and knowledge that permits split-second intelligent creativity. However, on this one day, in this one race, it was all Svar Beckersted. The few hundred words I wrote above really only cover maybe five seconds… If this were a prize fight, Oli would have expertly jabbed… and Svar, waiting for that opening, knocked him flat on the mat. Two great fighters, and an interesting lesson learned.

Now that should be enough for any mere mortal sailor in one race, right? Svar proves the point he still has the stiffest spar on the block? Well, sailing fans, SB wasn’t done yet. It was pretty obvious he was having too much fun.

One of the problems with sailing duels is… it wastes time. People further back in the pack are catching up while you are trying to prove an academic point by disabling one of your saltwater colleagues.

In this case, after Svar eliminated Oli, he still hadn’t even reached the first mark! Svar still had nearly the entire race to go.

The sequence on the left shows what happened at the first mark. Remember poor old HB? Well, by the time Svar finished with Oli, HB was back on his feet again. HB’s pretty resourceful, and he actually gets my vote as the second-best sailor today. He never gave up, and repeatedly came back punching. HB is already an excellent  sailboat racer, and his performance today shows he has the heart to win everything… but just not today.

This time, HB ganged up with AiLi Ling in an attempt to take out Svar when he took the turn at the mark. In the sequence on the left, the arrow shows Svar in the first two frames. Although the red buoy is hard to see, they are all rounding that first mark, with AiLi on the inside, and HB snuggled up to her slightly further out.

Look carefully at what Svar does… He is far too polite to phrase it this way, but he has already taken the measure of the other sailors, and he’s already had his exercise sparring for this race. Svar actually swings wide of his competition at the mark so he doesn’t have to deal with them. It’s not the shortest path, but given the nature of the turn he only loses a second or two… And Svar already knows this juggernaut will leave him with many seconds to spare.

Maybe that’s another important lesson from the Race Director Beckersted: In a race, you don’t have to fight every fight to win. Fight the ones that are fun, and when you’re done, run back to the finish line for milk and cookies.

I’m absolutely positive Svar will phrase it differently, but it really looks like that’s what he decided, and thats what he did.

After passing AiLi and HB, Svar went into overdrive; I don’t know what button he clicked in his tako, but flying in his wake I couldn’t keep up. I caught a couple glimpses of him only by teleporting ahead…. (First time that’s ever happened to me.)

Here’s the Boss, cutting across the surf in his own Solomon Sea. To their credit, HP and AiLi are still hanging in there, far, far in the distance:

And here’s a final look in tribute to a great sailor, great person, and wonderful Instructor.

Thanks Svar, for teaching us all.

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